In a rational world, last week’s Broncos game wouldn’t have happened. At the very least, in a world where sports leadership was rewarded for humility and a sense of proportion, football’s top honchos would be asking you and me to forget that game happened as swiftly as possible. But this is American football, which means this disaster is being spun into an example of grit, determination, and the ultimate gridiron cliché: Next man up.
There is nothing good worth remembering about last week’s Denver Broncos game versus the New Orleans Saints. All four of the Broncos’ quarterbacks were forced to miss the game after QB Jeff Driskel tested positive for COVID-19 and the other three had been in close contact; this being football, the quarterbacks’ reason for being in close contact with each other was so they could all do extra tape study. This left the Broncos without a quarterback. Because the league said the game must be played—nobody with true power in the league went on the record to explain why until Wednesday, when commissioner Roger Goodell offered the meek observation that the rest of the team, in the NFL’s opinion, wasn’t at risk—the Broncos were forced to turn practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton, who last played full-time quarterback three years ago, into a very last-minute QB.
No one enjoys learning a new job on the fly, let alone a job that you must do while avoiding 300-pound men trying to toss you to the ground on TV. Hinton did about as well as you would expect, which is to say his passer rating was zero. The Broncos didn’t just lose, they got blown out. It was a hard game to watch, a reminder that playing professional football at every position is extremely difficult and that COVID-19 continues to ravage American life every single day. It was a game that never should have happened in a season that, arguably, should not be happening.
But why let a massive pandemic that continues to kill Americans daily (as well as people across the globe) get in the way of sports’ ability to turn anything into a narrative! Sure, as of Sunday, more than 250,000 Americans and one million people globally have died from COVID-19. Yes, so much of this death could have been avoided if not for gross mismanagement by our federal government. As you might have heard, as of this Sunday a member of every single NFL team has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. By every measure possible, COVID-19 has decimated American life and our world. But the NFL is still playing, and that means the story-making machine lurches forward.
Late Friday, ESPN’s Jeff Legwold reported that the Broncos would send Hinton’s wristband from the ill-fated game, which had all the plays written on it, and the play-calling sheet, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A few days earlier, the Broncos themselves wrote that a prior player who became a last-minute QB —Tom Matte who went from running back to quarterback in 1965 after both Baltimore Colts quarterbacks got hurt — had sent Hinton a letter saying, “As the only two ‘Instant Quarterbacks’ in NFL history, we have a strong connection, thanks to our shared experience.” After the game, Hinton told reporters “just getting this opportunity and this experience has been amazing.”
And, you know what, I understand and respect that. Hinton should be proud of what he pulled off. In the exact same situation, I would have been pulverized. But I can acknowledge that and also zoom out to the larger situation. I can be proud of Hinton for doing better than 99.9 percent of the population in that circumstance, and also wish for a world where his bravery was unnecessary in the first place.
To some extent, this is what all sports do. By design, they take the dark parts—like the injuries and the chronic pain—and turn them into obstacles and setbacks, notes on a Hollywood storyboard, little more than something for our hero to overcome. But at some point there are no heroes. At some point, tragedy is just tragedy. A week later, I write this from Los Angeles, while the county’s COVID-19 numbers steadily tick upward. Today, the county’s testing positivity rate is averaging 9.3 percent with the death count nearing 8,000. Who knows about tomorrow. I check the rates every day, get more bad news, and simultaneously pray it never enters my circles while filling with dread that it must, eventually, because at some point the sheer spread will make it so. I take no comfort in Hinton’s performance last week, and neither should football, no matter what the old men of Canton say.